Newspaper editorial board meetings have always been a sort of midterm exam for candidates. Shopping for endorsements, it's where they are asked to discuss, in detail, their policy positions and to do so in a setting that isn't conducive to sound bites.
In Iowa last week, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst announced she wouldn't answer any questions from the Des Moines Register editorial board. After "much negotiating," according to a Register columnist, the Ernst camp pulled the plug on her scheduled Q&A with the daily, and also avoided meeting with a number of other Iowa newspapers.
Ernst wouldn't talk about the economy, healthcare, "personhood," national security, guns and the government, foreign affairs, or impeaching President Obama. Ernst wouldn't talk about anything. This was a classic dodge on Ernst's part; an aggressive stiff-arm to the mainstream press. It was an obvious refusal by a Republican candidate to sit and answer questions from local journalists on the eve of an election.
And so what was the Beltway media's reaction to Ernst's cancellation? Always on the lookout for campaign "gaffes" and relentlessly focused on the "optics" of elections, how did commentators react to Ernst's brazen evasion?
The press response was subdued and not very critical.
That low-key response stood in sharp contrast to the campaign fury that erupted in early October when when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer whether she had voted for Barack Obama. That question came amidst her hour-long, October 10, interview with the Louisville Journal-Courier's editorial board, during which time the Democrat discussed the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining. (Her opponent, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to be interviewed by the paper's editors.)
Grimes' substantive discussion was virtually ignored by the Beltway press, which turned her clumsy Obama question response into a days-long controversy. For instance, Washington Post blogs have referenced the Grimes story (i.e the "fiasco") more than 25 times; including 11 times in the first four days. (Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an entire column about Grimes' non-answer.) By contrast, the same Post blogs have mentioned the Ernst story only five times so far, according to Nexis, with writer Chris Cillizza actually complimenting the Ernst campaign for canceling its Register interview, suggesting the move was a "smart" one politically.
Overall, I found more than two-dozen television discussions or references to the Grimes story during a four-day span, from October 10-13, via Nexis. During a similar four-day span following news of Ernst's snub on October 23, I found no television discussions or references to that story. (Note that not every news program is archived by Nexis.)
So yes, the Democratic candidate who was accused of botching a question during an editorial board interview was pilloried in the press. But the Republican candidate who refused to sit for editorial board meetings was mostly given a pass. (Here's an exception.) Do double standards come any more tightly focused than that?
From the April 8 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:
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From the March 2 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:
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From the February 27 edition of NBC's The Chris Matthews Show:
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From the August 8 edition of NBC's The Chris Matthews Show:
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From the July 18 edition of The Chris Matthews Show:
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From the NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show:
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According to a report in Crain's New York, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of January's Game Change, have landed a $5 million deal to pen a book focusing on the 2012 presidential election:
Book publishers must think the 2012 presidential campaign will be even more eventful and historic than 2008's. The Penguin Press, an imprint of the Penguin Group (USA), has just emerged as the winning bidder for the next election-year book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, authors of the current best seller and media sensation Game Change.
The price: a whopping $5 million-plus, according to several executives with knowledge of the bidding.
The deal was reached earlier this week between Penguin Press Publisher Ann Godoff and literary agent Andrew Wylie and his associate Scott Moyers. Despite Game Change's success, which has been fueled by the book's wealth of 2008 campaign gossip and revelations, publishing veterans were shocked by the payout.
"This is presidential memoir level money," said one executive familiar with the deal.
Talk about rewarding a pair of authors whose previous work, while no doubt selling very well, played fast and loose with journalistic ethics on just about every level.
Those working in and around the 2012 campaign should be forewarned... do not talk to this pair. Not on the record. Not off the record. Not on background. Not on deep background. Not on double super-secret probationary background. Nothing. If Game Change 2012 is anything like Game Change 2008, here is what we can expect:
According to New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, Times columnist Maureen Dowd disputes much of what Game Change claims about her and David Geffen -- and says the book's authors, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, neither interviewed her nor checked all of their facts with her:
According to "Game Change," Dowd persuaded Geffen to give her an interview by telling him that, when it was over, if he did not want her to use it, she would not. She read the finished column to Geffen, the book said, warned him it would be explosive and asked if he wanted to take back anything. If true, Dowd would, in effect, have surrendered editorial control to her source, an unacceptable situation.
The book also implied that Dowd attended a private $2,300-per-person Obama fund-raiser the following night. Afterward, it said, she was among a small group of 35 who "repaired to Geffen's mansion" for a dinner for the Obamas.
Dowd said it didn't happen that way. "I never gave David Geffen veto power over the column," she said. She said she did not read the column to him, warn him that it would be explosive or ask if he wanted to take back his words, and she did not attend the Hollywood fund-raising event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. She was a guest at the dinner later, she said, although the candidate's camp sought to have her barred.
Dowd said that, as is often her practice, she told Geffen which quotes she was using and checked them for accuracy and context. He had been unsure whether he wanted to say some of the things he told her but agreed to all of it, she said.
Geffen, who did not want to get embroiled in a controversy among journalists, would only say: "I don't think anyone imagines Maureen would allow anyone to edit her column. I certainly didn't."
Dowd said the authors did not interview her for the book but that Halperin called at some point to "check a few - but not all - of the details."
* The convoluted sourcing rules used by Halperin & Heilemann, in particular their bizarre explanation of how they came to quote Harry Reid, have inspired the derisive phrases "Halperin background" and "Halperin deep background." It may be time for "Halperin facts" -- things that might be true, but require blind faith in Mark Halperin.
Boston College professor Alan Wolfe reviews Game Change for the Washington Post:
John Heilemann, national political correspondent for New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, editor at large for Time, have been subject to some pretty harsh judgments of their coverage. Both are members in good standing of the "Village," the derisive term widely used in the blogosphere to convey what critics see as the insular and complacent quality of mainstream journalism.
The lefty bloggers' basic complaint is that the Washington press corps deals in trivia, reflects conventional wisdom and is all too respectful of the politicians it should be challenging. "Game Change," the new book by Heilemann and Halperin, offers this reviewer a chance to judge the judgers: Are the bloggers on to something, or are they just jealous of the fact that inside-the-Beltway journalists such as Heilemann and Halperin are quite skillful?
"Game Change" inadvertently confirms just how many of our top political journalists really are Villagers. ... For one thing, Heilemann and Halperin write about the campaign as if they were not active participants in shaping it.
Heilemann and Halperin also purvey a lot of material in stenographic fashion, which only feeds into the complaints of their critics.
[W]hile the authors of "Game Change" have much to say about John McCain's dreadful response to the economic crisis, they shy away from any discussion of economics. Nor would one know, after reading this book, that the biggest task facing the winner of the election would be cleaning up the mess left by the people on the way out. To talk about real historical significance would mean addressing matters of substance, and that would violate the chatty inside-dope approach that characterizes Village journalism.
I read the bloggers and, while I admire their energy and commitment, I often find their near-hysteria off-putting. When they write about the Villagers, I detect, if not jealousy, then smugness, as if they believe they could do a better job than the journalists who take home the big bucks. As someone who grew up reading great political reporting, even the kind that produced the classic campaign books of previous years, I wish that all those who scoff about insular and un-self-critical Villagers would be proven wrong. It is too bad that Heilemann and Halperin have proved them, by and large, right.
Last week, Bob Franken led the charge in criticizing the sourcing rules Mark Halperin and John Heilemann devised for Game Change, calling their explanation of those rules "the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time" and adding: "There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources."
Now Washington Post/CNN media critic Howard Kurtz joins in:
"Game Change" caused an immediate furor by quoting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as having said "privately" that Obama could win the presidency because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect." Reid apologized for the clumsy remarks, which his office confirmed he made to Halperin and Heilemann. But even with their source admitting the conversation, the authors refuse to confirm that they interviewed Reid. It's not "in the public interest," Halperin argues, for them to "get on the slippery slope" of acknowledging interviews.
Deep background means that you can describe someone's thinking or reconstruct verbatim dialogue when you're writing about events involving that person. As an author who has used the technique, I don't believe it entitles you to directly quote what someone said to you, which effectively puts it on the record, and several other journalists have said they agree.
I have not, however, seen a single journalist offer an unqualified defense of the sourcing techniques Halperin and Heilemann used. If anyone has an example, please let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: A reader points out that in an article by Politico's Michael Calderone, several journalists -- including Bob Woodward and Jonathan Alter -- broadly defended the use of anonymous sources. None, however, defended Halperin/Heilemann's treatment of the Reid quote, or the specifics of the way Game Change relied upon unnamed sources.
Mark Halperin defends the sourcing practices he and John Heilemann used for their book Game Change:
To be sure, Time's Mark Halperin and New York Magazine's John Heilemann had the advantage of reconstructing the events after the fact, aided by operatives who were given a cloak of anonymity to dish and perhaps settle scores.
"One of the things people have said is that we've let the losers write the history, we've relied on people with axes to grind," Halperin says. "We were so careful, so cautious in our sourcing. You won't see a negative portrait, a negative description that relies simply on a person with an ax to grind."
That's what counts as being "so cautious in our sourcing" these days? Not relying on a single unnamed source with a vendetta? Quick, somebody give these guys an award!
If there's a silver lining to the dark cloud that is Game Change, it's that the nastiest campaign gossip book in years has inspired several amusing and creative denunciations of the both book and its authors, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
Don Imus, for example, referred to it as "a 450-page version of Page Six," according to Halperin.
The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins -- who notes of the authors' sourcing rules: "It's too charitable to simply call this shady" -- adds:
What you will get from this tome is the experience of being dragged through a great, teeming, gossipy Superfund-sized pile of shit, lovingly accumulated by two authors who have basically allowed anyone willing to offer nasty hearsay, trash-talk, or score-settling to dump away.
It's all in the service of utter, black venality. I am honestly depressed to be have so much of this book yet to read. My only comfort is that I wasn't the one who chose to masticate, digest, and regurgitate this shit in the first place.
There is nothing in the book that will deepen your understanding of the information beyond what others regurgitate about it. In fact, it's possible that actually READING the book will make you dumber. You certainly will learn more about how Washington works from reading what people say about the book than from the book itself.
(And, bonus Ana Marie Cox: "Washington has a scab. Game Change is the horrible oozing infection that comes after you pick at it.")
Bob Franken, on H/H explanation of the ground rules they used for interviews:
That's the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time. There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources. You don't burn them not because it's the right thing to do, it's because you don't get any information the next time around. And I really believe that what we might see is that these guys are not going to be welcome when they're talking to different people who might provide them information in the future.
[I]f the authors were concerned with accuracy they might have checked their reporting with people on the Vice President's staff. They did not.
(Ok, that one isn't all that amusing -- until you remember that Carney worked with Halperin at Time before joining Vice President Biden't staff.)
A book based on backstabbing gossip from disgruntled campaign aides and pissed off rivals is about as reliable a six year olds playing a game of telephone. When you combine these nasty little tidbits with the Villager sensibility and biases of the writers, you end up with a docu-drama rather than a work of non-fiction.
I'm sure Heilemann and Halperin are very proud to be the top, tabloid journalists in the country providing much shaudenfreude for the Villagers and entertainment for everyone else. They'll sell a lot of books
it's human nature to like mean, nasty gossip
and this one looks like it gives TMZ a run for its money.
Notably, the Edwards scandal was relentlessly pursued and first "broken" by The National Enquirer, and I defy anyone to read the book excerpt on Edwards (to the extent you can even get through it) and identify any differences between the book's tone, content and "reporting" methods and those found in the Enquirer.
Just when you think the news cycle can't get any stupider, Mark Halperin publishes a book.
But perhaps the most damning reaction to Game Change is this: Politico ran at least 16 articles and blog posts about the book before it had been in book stores for 48 hours.
From the January 12 edition of Fox Business' Imus in the Morning
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The Village was cooing last night over "Game over: The Clintons stand alone," the speculative and gloating hit on the Clintons by Politico's Ben Smith.
Smith breathlessly recounts claims about the Clintons that first appeared in Mark Halperin's new book Game Change, then takes a sneering ha-ha-nobody-likes-the-Clintons tone in noting the purported lack of Clinton loyalists contesting the book's claims.
Now, there's another pretty obvious possible explanation for the lack of an aggressive high-profile response to the book by the Clintons and their former staff. As John Aravosis -- who, if memory serves, did not take a favorable view of Clinton during the presidential primaries -- explains:
I think, rather, that Hillary is being a good Secretary of State. ... I think the lack of response from Team Clinton on this book is because she doesn't want to be a distraction for the President. And if that's the case, she deserves credit.
Now, I don't know if Aravosis is right, or if Smith is. Don't really care, either. But it is striking that Smith never even considers the possibility that "Team Clinton" is laying low for the reason Aravosis suggests. It suggests a tunnel vision on Smith's part, and an eagerness to portray the Clintons as adrift and alone.
One passage in Smith's article was particularly striking to me (emphasis added):
Finally, the depiction of candidate Clinton in "Game Change" suggests that her competitiveness sometimes expressed itself as consuming suspicion.
"I am convinced they also imported people into those caucuses," she reportedly told Penn a month after her concession. In that conversation, which the authors appear to have obtained from a tape-recording or transcript, she reporteldly gave Penn a particularly self-serving assignment:
I want you to start thinking about how I avoid being blamed [for Obama's possible defeat]", Clinton said. "Because I shouldn't be blamed. But they are going to blame me. I somehow didn't do enough."
What's interesting about this passage isn't the substance of Clinton's purported comments. I mean, who really cares if Clinton asked Mark Penn to think about how she could avoid being blamed for an Obama general-election loss? What's remarkable about that?
No, what's interesting is Smith's description of the book's sourcing for the comment. Think about it for a minute: Ben Smith can't tell whether the authors got the quote from a tape-recording or a transcript. That speaks volumes about the authors' shiftiness in describing their sourcing. There's a huge difference between having recordings and having a transcript. If it was a transcript, that would raise all kinds of questions about who produced it and when and how accurate it was.
It says something about the authors that they were ambiguous about which it was, recording or transcript. Just as it says something about them that the source of the famous Clinton/coffee quote isn't described in any way whatsoever:
But Bill [Clinton] then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.
Quick: who's the source of that quote? The Kennedy friend, right? That's what a lot of people have assumed. But read it again: Halperin & Heilemann don't actually say the Kennedy friend was their source. Their source could have been a friend of the friend. Or the friend's gardener. Or the friend's cousin's roommate's high school girlfriend's uncle. We have no idea.
That's bad enough. What's worse is that Halperin and Heilemann's writing is either sloppy or disingenuous enough that it leads the reader to assumptions about the sourcing -- the Kennedy friend; the tape-recording -- that, for whatever reason, the authors don't come out and confirm. They imply sourcing that is stronger than they are willing to assert.
That, to me, is a clear sign of a book -- of authors -- that cannot be trusted. Yet it apparently didn't raise any red flags for Smith, or Cillizza, or the other journalists who have been raving about Smith's piece. And that speaks volumes about the state of political journalism.
UPDATE: Greg Sargent weighs in:
what's mystifying is that virtually none of the media figures lavishing attention on this book have broached the sourcing issue, something you'd think would merit a bit of discussion among professional journalists. Discussion of this has been left almost entirely to bloggers.